Saturday, August 26, 2017

Fall Migration

At 5:30 this morning, the sun had not begun to avail itself through the boughs of my front yard walnut. It seems like only a few weeks ago that the sun streaming through my open windows at 5:15 every morning brought on the morning cicada chorus and warm, sunny weather by 6:00. This morning at 5:30 I had to employ a flashlight to navigate to my hummingbird feeders for refilling; I made the sugar water overnight and wanted to make sure the popular backyard feeders were full at daybreak. The downy woodpeckers enjoy feasting on the ants that the sugar water attracts, and with four feeders scattered throughout the length of my deep lot, the hummingbirds are well fed. This time of year also corresponds to an entire backyard full of yellow blooming cup plant, a major attractant to not only hummingbirds but bumble bees and native sweat bees.

For the past few weeks, unable to spend much time outside, I've tracked fall bird migration through the nighttime radar maps. Migration is largely triggered by daylength, and birds travel mostly at night. Last night, Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel reported that the eye of Hurricane Harvey was filled with thousands of migrating birds, a phenomenon that also happened during Hurricane Matthew. My local Audubon chapter posted this interesting Citizen Science link that tracks the hummingbird migration. Evidently it's well underway in our area. As long as the hummingbirds continue to feed, keep your feeders up. If you have the great fortune to visit Portal, Arizona this fall, you'll be delighted to know that homeowners allow random birders into their yards to witness activity at their feeders. On a trip a couple of years ago, I saw 6 species of hummingbirds--many feeding on the red cactus flowers, but swarming around backyard feeders. Some homeowners ask for a small donation to help cover the cost of sugar water.

Even though there is abundant native food, mainly insects and berries, in the neighborhood, I started filling my seed feeders a couple of weeks ago. Most of my friends in my Audubon chapter feed seed all year; I don't have the budget for that. Nevertheless, goldfinches and chickadees, woodpeckers and gray catbirds, are all enjoying the country mix. To boot, the catbirds have stripped my enormous pokeweed of all of its dark purple berries, resulting in violet water in my birdbath.

I am not ready for the winter months ahead, days when I leave my house in the dark and come home from work in the dark. I never get enough exercise in the dark days and nights of winter. Thankfully, there are still plenty of blooming composites, great birding, warm afternoons and the coming of grape harvest.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

In the St. Francois Mountains

On May 8, 2009, in the middle of the day, straight line winds in excess of 100mph ripped through the Ozark Highlands and toppled the largely wooded canopy across approximately 150 miles. The wind event, labeled as a derecho (pronounced both in the proper Spanish pronunciation and the Americanized version), was predicted by Drew and the other fine folks at Springfield NOAA. This storm that brought us a bow echo wind event resulted in not only flattened trees across thousands of acres, but damaged buildings, closed roads and caused power outages for at least a week if not more.

While many private and public landowners began salvage logging all of the red oak, black oak and scattered white oak that had fallen during the storm, some landowners left the downed trees to let nature take its course, beetle food, natural decomposition and all. Deep in the heart of the St. Francois Mountains this one area that did not see heavy equipment rip up the soil and damage the understory has served as a lesson in recovery through the years. Looking at the original General Land Office survey records, one can read about the abundance of hazelnut shrubs in the midstory and a scattered post oak and shortleaf pine overstory that existed before intensive settlement of the area began in the mid-1800s. Visiting the areas that did not see the wind event, one may be hard pressed to find hazelnut and pine, and, after many years of open range grazing and fire suppression, there is an explosion of a red oak-black oak component that does not coincide with the historic character. But visit the regenerating woodlands that have now been managed with infrequent fire, witnessed no salvage logging, and allowed to regenerate naturally, and one will find a canopy and midstory composition much in line with the historic survey records.

And so, in summer 2017, the pines are skyrocketing, the post oak-white oak shrubs are maturing into trees, and looking out across the landscape, from a long view at least, it's difficult to discern that 90% of the canopy had been uprooted by that windstorm. On the ground, hiking the maintained Ozark Trail, the shrub layer is dense and thick and in need of a prescribed fire to encourage the canopy trees and to knock back some of the dense thickets of black gum, drought stressed last week and already turning red.

The hazelnut shrubs are producing a bumper crop of nuts which must be absolutely great for the black bear population down there. The brush is so thick and dense, but the canopy trees that were felled by the windstorm are melting thanks to successive fires and sheer time. Shrubland birds thrive here, with a cacophony of towhees and yellow-breasted chats surrounding us as we duct taped off the thousands of seed ticks littering our trouser legs. The area spared from salvage logging is a din of bird life, insect life, good forb diversity and blooming goldenrods and blazing stars. Resiliency in our highest quality areas is possible if we don't mess with them too much.